Learn English in Singapore

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Sep 23 17:21:09 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, September 23, 2003


For Chinese Mothers With a Dream, Hard Knocks


    SINGAPORE Propelled by his parents' ambitions, Han Weiding, 13, left
behind all that he knew in China and decamped this summer with his mother
to this city-state to go to school. In a cramped apartment, the strapping
teenager struggles with English homework. After two months, the television
cartoons are still unintelligible, and his ultimate goal of fluent English
seems frustratingly far away. His mother, a diminutive, poorly educated
woman, remains without a job. In the last several years, thousands of
Chinese women no one is quite sure of the precise number have brought
their children for schooling to Singapore, where the first language is
English but where the population is dominated by descendants of scrappy
immigrants who fled the Chinese mainland generations ago.

Officially, the students and their mothers have been welcomed the vigilant
Singaporean government grants them official documents on arrival. But
elsewhere, the reception has been chilly, with scarce work for the women
and rude remarks about their true intentions. In many ways, the reaction
to the newcomers reflects the anxieties that glittering but stagnant
Singapore feels as it meets aspiring and fast-growing China.

For years, Lee Kwan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and now its elder
statesman, warned his people that their ancestral homeland "the dragon
with a long tail," he called it would inevitably become a force to be
reckoned with. As that reality sets in, Singapore has been taking steps to
cash in on China's relative new riches.

China is now one of Singapore's biggest export markets. Affluent Chinese
tourists come here to shop, dropping thousands of dollars on just one
trip. The Economic Development Board has announced plans to open a private
university and specialty schools in cooking and hotel management to
attract fee-paying Chinese students. In an effort to raise standards in
Singapore's classrooms, the Ministry of Education has offered scholarships
to talented students from China to attend government primary and secondary
schools, and universities.

But for some Singaporeans, the determination of the Chinese to succeed,
and their increasing mobility, represents a threat. The "study mothers,"
as the women have been called, are one small but visible example. A book
published last year called "The Crows" described the newcomers as women
who go into the massage business, sometimes into prostitution. Newspapers
have begun writing about the women as marriage-breakers.

In reality, the Chinese women, who rarely speak English, find it tough to
find work in the recession-plagued economy, said Chen Hua, 35, who came to
Singapore two years ago, and has written a book defending the women. If
they do find jobs, they are often accused of elbowing aside Singaporeans.
They find affordable accommodations scarce. "A lot of the mothers come
from the provinces where people do not speak English, and they want their
children to be able to listen to English all around them, and to learn
it," said Ms. Chen, who arrived with the same goals as the study mothers
but has the advantage of a well-to-do husband to support her and her two
children. "When they get here, the mothers often do not know there will be
a lot of extra expenses for tuition. They don't know how expensive an
apartment will be, or how hard it will be to get a job."

At fault, said Ms. Chen, are unscrupulous agents who advertise in China
with glowing promises of well-paid jobs and easily affordable schooling.
The agents prey on the desire of Chinese parents to have the best for
their children, she said. Also, the Singapore government should be more
understanding, Ms. Chen said. In August, for example, the Ministry of
Manpower issued guidelines restricting the hiring of women from China in
the hotel, restaurant and massage parlor industries.

But as tough as life might be for the newly arrived mothers, they seem
determined to hang on. Shao Lin Yun, 39, the mother of Weiding, delivered
newspapers in their hometown on the Chinese island of Hainan, where her
husband is a shrimp farmer. In Singapore, she found a job washing cars but
was soon fired. She depended on remittances from her husband to pay for
their son's tuition.

"The education system in China is good," she said. "But the purpose of
coming here is for my son to learn English." When he returned to China
after high school, she said, he would have a leg up on many others. An
even more enterprising mother, Yang Fang, 32, from Shanghai, has already
moved her son, Qian Qikai, 9, who has mastered colloquial English, from
one Singapore primary school to a better one. Her son's new school, Bukit
View East, agreed that he could skip the third grade, she said.

Ms. Yang was agitated, however, because the very top school was not open
to her son. The agent in Shanghai had told her that Qikai would be able to
sit for the entrance exam to the elite Henry Park Primary School, one of
the most sought after primary schools in Singapore. The rules did not
allow that, however. But she seems undeterred. Asked what's next for Qikai
after school in Singapore, she replied, "America."

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